Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! The Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:
In the summer of 2017, A&E aired one of the strangest, most unforgettable shows in recent TV history: The Lowe Files. The nine-episode unscripted series follows actor Rob Lowe and his two adult sons, Matthew and John Owen, as they travel the western U.S. and investigate the paranormal. Together, they seek out evidence of ghosts, UFOs, and even Bigfoot. Of course, they never find any real, definitive proof of their existence (could you imagine if Rob Lowe had been the person to find Bigfoot after all this time?) But the journey the three men go on over the course of eight weeks is remarkable for the way it merges paranormal adventure with a wry study of celebrity and father/son bonding to create a series akin, at times, to a fever dream. Like the things Rob and his sons are chasing, it’s hard to believe the show is, or ever was, real.
During The Lowe Files’ lone season (which naturally uses Blue Oyster Cult’s “[Don’t Fear] the Reaper” over its opening credits), the men visit Preston Castle, a supposedly haunted former reformatory school in California, alongside Rob’s shaman (Shaman Jon). They explore the nature and psychology of fear by spending time in an old penitentiary in Boise, Idaho, and recording their bodies’ reactions to events. They even seek out alleged tunnels beneath Los Angeles in search of aliens in an hour that prominently features Rob getting seasick and puking over the side of a boat. But the most memorable episode is one that involves conspiracies and a trip to Utah in which Rob sets off an alarm after getting a bit too close to a restricted U.S. Army base while in search of the truth. To put it simply: The Lowe Files is exactly what you expect it to be, and yet nothing you could ever predict.
In the premiere, as the men make their way to Preston Castle, Rob explains to Matthew and John Owen (and thus the audience) that he wanted to do The Lowe Files because he loves the paranormal adventure, ghost-hunting genre. A few minutes later, they roll up to a donut shop where Rob is surrounded by a dozen or so fans who want to take photos with him. He happily obliges, but then the camera cuts to Matthew and John Owen, who are in the car, and it’s clear they have witnessed this exact situation numerous times and can only laugh at this point. Most series wouldn’t include this little detour in the finished product, but The Lowe Files is a different kind of show.
Still, the rest of the hour follows the more familiar beats of the paranormal adventure genre, with the group investigating the one-time reformatory using devices that are said to detect otherworldly phenomena, while John Owen plays the necessary role of cynical skeptic. However, the series separates itself from the numerous self-serious shows that dominate the genre by leaning into moments of lighthearted levity, like when Matthew and Shaman Jon prank Rob and John Owen by kicking a ball down the stairs after the latter experience what they believe to be spiritual activity.
It’s moments like this that remind us we’re watching Rob Lowe—star of TV shows like The West Wing, Parks and Recreation, and The Grinder—and his grown children, not experts (or “experts”) who’ve made careers out of investigating hauntings, possessions, aliens, or unexplained phenomena. It makes for some fascinating (and exceptionally fun) TV, but the show is at its best when the producers remind viewers of the identity and celebrity status of their subject, like when the premiere ends with footage from a local news broadcast from the donut shop in which a reporter reveals which donut Rob chose and what time of day he indulged his sweet tooth. Or when Rob thinks he might be able to talk his way onto a military base because one time he talked his way onto the field at the Super Bowl.
The series truly shines, though, when the carefully constructed fame facade comes down and John Owen and Matthew bust their actor father’s chops, like when the former tells Rob to stop posing for the camera or when he calls him out for changing the facts of a murder in order to support the possibility of a ghostly presence. “That’s not how she died; she was strangled,” he says. “You’re building the narrative.”
These moments occur throughout the show and remind us this is a man who’s spent decades in front of the camera and knows what he’s doing, even if his actions and reactions might, at times, appear to be innocent and unintentional. In the fifth episode, which finds Rob and John Owen digging into the psychology of fear and why some people are naturally more scared than others (Matthew had a midterm and couldn’t make the trip), Rob spends time alone in what he refers to as a dungeon. Thanks to the night vision on the cameras the film crew set up, we can see him looking around at his surroundings even though the room he’s in is pitch-black. Observing his actions from the monitors, John Owen deadpans, “He’s an actor, so he always knows where the camera is.”
It’s the type of factual but good-natured ribbing that can only occur between people who know each other well, like, say, a father and son. But the deconstruction of Rob Lowe the Actor and the shattering of the barrier between viewer and subject that occurs each time something like this happens reminds us that this man is a performer by trade. Despite the show’s focus on adventure, it is equally a study in celebrity that forces us to consider (or reconsider) how much of what we see is staged and fabricated for television and how much is authentic and real, which is always a major question of reality TV. And yet, this isn’t the only thing that makes The Lowe Files worth watching.
One of the show’s greatest strengths, ultimately, is its ability to capture the relationship between a father and his sons. For all of Rob’s talk about being interested in and wanting to explore spooky legends and the like, The Lowe Files is largely an excuse for him to spend time with his sons as they finish college and prepare to go out into the real world. It’s an extended family road trip, one last adventure together before life ultimately gets in the way and makes such things much more difficult. But thanks to the personalities involved and the ever-present camera, the show is also able to prove that sometimes reality is actually better and stranger and more interesting than even the possibilities of exploring the unknown.
Watch on A&E
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.